Julian Browning reads Amoris Lætitia

In April the Vatican published Pope Francis’s 260-page post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Letitia, which reflected on the work of two Synods on the Family, and included contributions from bishops’ conferences around the world. It is a magisterial document and an eloquent summary; and the world’s press was quick to observe that nothing had changed. But everything has changed. Instead of receiving yet another rule book for professionals to consult, we are presented with a humble, realistic, and acutely personal contribution to a continuing debate; and it comes from a Pope who begs us to avoid ‘a rushed reading of the text’ (para.7).

First, let us admit to declarations of interest as Catholic Anglicans. We have not played fair with papal pronouncements in the past. We like to run with the bigger gang because we are Catholic; then we peel off and go in another direction because we are Anglican and think for ourselves. That sort of doublethink contributed to our own Thirty Years’ War about ministry, and it won’t do. This is a document to which most of us can give our wholehearted assent. It’s not so much what Pope Francis says, as the way he says it. ‘We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.'(37) My first reaction was awe. This is the Pope’s personal address to millions of Catholics worldwide about family life, that aspect of human existence subject to the widest cultural and national differences, yet he takes our unity for granted. So if we really are Catholic in any shape or form, then this is the Pope’s letter to you and to me.

His range is vast. ‘The Experience and Challenge of Families’; ‘Looking to Jesus: the Vocation of the Family’; ‘Love in Marriage’; ‘Love Made Fruitful’; ‘Some Pastoral Perspectives’; and much else. Church teaching is explained, but Francis calls for ‘patient realism’. Complex modern factors, the effects of migration, symptoms of loneliness, absent fathers, our individualistic culture, the ideology of gender – ‘let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator’ (56) – virginity, celibacy, narcissism. No issue is avoided and at no point does Francis retreat to the safety of his office: it is ‘not helpful to impose rules by sheer authority’  (35). He admits that ordained ministers often lack the training to deal with the problems currently facing families; yet he also proposes ideals – positive and joyful ideals – many supported in this document by texts from the Scriptures or the Church Fathers. The family is ‘the sanctuary of life’ (83) so it cannot be a place where life is rejected and destroyed.

When Francis tackles the raising of children, there is a touching evocation (which some may find fanciful) of an old-fashioned little Catholic emerging into his Continental clan to a loving chorus from his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, listening with delight to his grandmother’s tales, being supported through life by what the Pope calls ‘the larger family’ of in-laws and godparents and second cousins, all of whom attend his First Communion and have huge meals together. Do not let envy rob you of this vision.

It was at about page 90 that I felt the tempo change. Francis gives us a lyrical and scholarly exposition of 1 Corinthians 13: ‘It is important for Christians to show their love by the way they treat family members who are less knowledgeable about the faith, weak or less sure in their convictions. At times the opposite occurs: the supposedly mature believers within the family become unbearably arrogant. Love, on the other hand, is marked by humility; if we are to understand, forgive and serve others from the heart, our pride has to be healed and our humility must increase.’ (98) It is as if the Pope has dropped in for a chat.

In simple, pastoral language, the Pope reminds us, literally, to say ‘Please’, ‘Thank You’, and ‘Sorry’. He finds the right words himself, always, and tells us that we must find them too, especially in the setting of the family.

How many official documents have you read which lay emphasis on the importance of a kind look? A‘ kind look helps us see beyond our limitations, to be patient, and to cooperate with others, despite our differences.’ (100) Throughout this document Pope Francis gently reminds us of the importance and significance of kindness, courtesy, blessing, and forgiveness. He achieves an extraordinary intimacy. He sits down and tells us how to get on with one another and how to mend broken relationships. ‘Love needs time and space; everything else is secondary.’ (224)

Pastoral realism is the order of the day. ‘Given the pace of life today, most couples cannot attend frequent meetings; still, we cannot restrict our pastoral outreach to small and select groups. Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended.’ (230)

Any New Directions reader wondering whether his or her particular ‘irregularity’ has achieved papal approval will be disappointed. Yet this new transformative papal language beckons us all in a Gospel direction. The liberals may shrug and the traditionalists will seethe, and the professionals might issue dark warnings about situation ethics – and yet the Pope says firmly that no one is to be judged or condemned outright. The call is to the personal discernment of the individual, to his or her growth and maturity. It is not up to any of us to inhibit grace. The rulebook is not enough: ‘… a pastor can not feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.’

Divorced and remarried Catholics remain part of the Church. It is acknowledged here that an artificially high ideal of marriage has been more of a burden than a help. And on the issue of the day? Same-sex unions are mentioned only two or three times in this 260-page document, not because of some biblical anathema, but because they are not family and serve no purpose in society. ‘De facto or same-sex unions … may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.’ (52) Sorry, boys and girls, but in the context of worldwide Catholicism the issue of same-sex marriage is not very interesting. I do hope nobody goes to war over it.

Does this remarkable document have much to say to Anglicans? Plenty, and much of what the Pope says has an application beyond the human family to the Church, the ‘family of families’ (80). Could we find in Amoris Lætitia some encouragement in living with our own split ecclesiastical family? ‘Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.’ (305) It’s all so simple: ‘The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love which never gives up.’ (119) ND

The Revd Julian Browning is Hon. Assistant Priest at All Saints’, Margaret Street, London.